Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Presence of the Sun

A couple of weeks ago, Grace, my seven year old, sang the part of Goldilocks in her first play, Character Matters.  It was the culmination of a two-week drama camp.  On opening night, the curtain opened and the cast was in two lines on the hot, brightly lit stage, staring out at wide-eyed parents and grandparents, siblings and aunts and uncles.   My daughter stood there, red-cheeked with two braided pony-tails, and wearing a blue and red polka-dotted dress.  Immediately, I could tell she was a little uncomfortable.  She has this way of pulling her chin a little toward her shoulder and lowering her eyes, and she’ll start to bite her lower lip.  Her eyes were scanning the audience.  She couldn’t find us.  Although I felt like standing on the chair and yelling, “Grace, here we are!” as I pointed to me and her mother, I didn’t want to draw too much attention to us and embarrass her.  So I craned my neck and gave a little wave in front of my face.  And then she found us.
Grace smiled and her shoulders eased and she stood up straight.  I could see the tension ebb from her just because she saw her mother and me.  All she seemed to need was our presence to comfort her, as if our sitting there was enough for her to be able to say to herself, I’m not alone.  I can do this.  The people who love me most are with me.  And that makes everything okay. 
I was filled with joy.  Seeing her up there.  And seeing what her mother and I meant to her.  I hope we always mean that to her.  I know firsthand of what that kind of presence in life can mean.
While playing tag out front one afternoon with Stephanie, a little girl who lived three doors down, she tags me and I run after her.  She runs inside and shuts the door.  As she shuts the door, I reach out to tag her back.  The door shuts on my right index finger, almost cutting the top of it completely off; it hangs on by a piece of skin, and I can actually see into my own finger.  Everyone is freaking out—her folks are yelling, and my mom is shaking my hand and yelling back, and I’m scared to death.  The ambulance pulls up.  I had never seen one.  Its spinning lights and blaring siren fading to a stop seem to buttress my shock and fright.  I can feel the heat of the ambulance and the rising temperature from the increase in bodies surrounding me.  Speculations of my prognosis are already ping-ponging across the huddled crowd.  I look again at my four-year-old finger, wondering how much longer I’ll have it.  I’m not even crying, just breathing harder than I ever have.  There’s only one thing I want, and so I ask, “Where’s Daddy?”
Sitting in the back of the ambulance, I see his car rounding the bend in the distance.  Everything else disappears into periphery as he pulls up in his blue station wagon.  He gets out.  Walks over.  Takes my hand.  Eyes up my finger.  And says, “Oh yeah, they’ll patch that right up.  It’ll be okay.” 
That’s all it took. 
At that moment, I became very calm.  My breathing slowed.  And suddenly everyone around me seemed almost one dimensional.  Because of the shock, my finger ceased to hurt.  The rest of the afternoon, through the x-rays, stitches, and bandaging, seemed to morph into some sort of adventure.  I felt very little fear, all because of one thing: my dad said ‘it’ll be okay.’  Because he had said so, I knew it would be so.  At that age, I had already figured out that my dad never lied; he always told me the truth.  His word was the truth.  It was as dependable as the sun. 
The prophet Isaiah, in Chapter 41, delivers the following assurance from God: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”  ‘Fear not, for I am with you.’  God’s presence is all that’s needed to alleviate our fear.  To bring about a sense of calm in the turmoil.  Just being there.  Together.  Not alone.  Saying, ‘I’m here.  It’ll be okay.’  And it’s true.  It is true because of what we figure out in our faith—If God says so, then it will be so.  In his presence, it is His word that comforts us.  His word is the truth.  It is a father’s word.  It is as dependable as the sun.
When I was seven, my mother had just divorced my stepfather, and in her despondency, she threatened to move several states away to be near her mother in Kalamazoo.  My sister and I were still living with her then, but we didn’t want to go.  Of course, nor did our father want us to go.  In the three years since he and my mother divorced, my father had remarried and had established a life with our stepmother.  We had created a working routine and were enjoying some feeling of normalcy again.  So when my mother announced that we might be moving, my first thought was not about moving or going to a new school or making new friends; it was how am I going to see my dad.  Behind the scenes, he was already making preparations.
My father had explained to his new wife that wherever his kids go, he goes.  What was most important to him was that he was to be a constant presence in our lives.  And if that meant uprooting his life to follow his children across the world, then that’s what he planned to do.  Without hesitation, my stepmother agreed.  Need be, they would move to Kalamazoo, find an apartment, get new jobs, and continue on as before.
So when I asked my father, “If we move, when will we see you?”  He squared up to me, knelt down, and looked at me eye-to-eye, and said, “Do not worry.  Wherever you go, I will always be there.”  And again, that was all it took. 
Thankfully, my mother decided not to move.  But no matter.  I didn’t care whether we moved or not after that; once my father said he would be with me, and I knew it to be so, my fear drained away.   I must admit that I was a little shocked.  Or was I impressed?  My father was so willing to drop everything and move, just like that, just to be with my sister and me, as if that was the only option.  No decision but to put us first.  It’s a bit overwhelming to realize that someone loves you to that degree.  He did.  
As children, we see our parents as God.  From that first embrace and that first smile and that first feeding, they establish their presence and a trust and a faith that mimics what God’s presence does for us, that presence promised in Isaiah, a presence dependable as the sun.  It makes us safe, and it gives us relief.  It’s strong enough to even help a four-year-old cope with a mangled finger, and losing a game of tag.  It’s strong enough to allow us to sing out in front of strangers.  Strong enough to help us face unknown lands.  

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